Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How the Car Killed Main Street

This should be a long academic treatise showing migration patterns out from city centers, with a time line and supporting documentation, but it's really just a thought I had while riding yesterday.

The Holiday Season, as it has come to be known, uses decades of imagery to represent centuries of legend to support an illusion of cheer and generosity centered around warmly lighted windows, often in storybook towns and cities. Carolers stroll the streets. Scrooges endlessly endure annual consciousness-raising. Cratchits show us what it's really all about. So do Whos in Whoville.

By the 1960s, when I started keeping coherent memories (more or less), the Christmas season meant decorated shops and public spaces. It meant music you didn't hear during the rest of the year. It wasn't quite yet a hideous, obnoxious saturation barrage of an ever-increasing playlist of commercial schlock. Downtown areas were hung with garlands. Light poles might turn into candy canes. We shopped, yes, but with a communal feeling, in the commercial and governmental center of our local unit of civilization.

This isn't an essay about the holidays and their meaning, except to the extent that they offer us a picture of how completely our transportation habits have changed our social habits. You can notice it any time of year, through different lenses. But now it's December and I happen to work in retail in a town. That combined in my mind with the irony that the device that made cruising Main Street possible also led directly to Main Street's undoing.

Black Friday found us nearly deserted. Anyone shopping had undertaken the big road trip to the nearest mall complex centered on giant chain stores or big box discount retailers. People choose to shop their town as a sociopolitical statement. They make an extra effort to travel a shorter distance and put up with the limitations of businesses that have been fighting the trend of the migratory shopper for dozens of years. They're settling for less, economically, to make their mark in favor of municipality.

The malls decorate for the holidays the way downtown areas used to. Downtown areas try to put on their finery as well, but for less reason. In Annapolis, even as late as the early 1980s, I would stroll the streets, dropping into various shops and eating establishments. In a good year, when I actually had some money, I could shop for gifts. In a lean year, when everyone was going to get a hug, I could still walk around and soak up the bustle and cheer of humans lighting a candle against the winter solstice darkness. From what I hear, most of Main Street Annapolis is dark and empty now.

On the outskirts of town, the mall complexes have extended pavement across hundreds of acres. When you shave off the trees and plunk down some huge, rectilinear buildings, 100 acres doesn't look like much. Some of it was already developed in the 1960s. Much more was wooded: what developers like to refer to as "wasteland."

"Nobody's using it. We ought to."

The squirrels can just shave their tails and get jobs as rats. Other wildlife can't make as easy a transition. And those humans who were aware that the forest conveyed an inexplicable sense of peace are far outnumbered by the ones who let the building happen and now don't understand why they're just that much crankier and more impatient with each other.

From a motorist standpoint, a shopping center fed by arterial roadways, filled with the full variety of emporia a shopper might desire, makes far more sense than driving into the congested labyrinth of urban streets, seeking a place to safely and legally ditch the car and then walking on outdoor sidewalks to this store or that. Maybe another store you want to visit is in another neighborhood, inconveniently far away. That means more driving, more navigation, hunting for more parking.

Before the mall explosion, these were normal parts of motorized shopping. And a non-motorized shopper would have the same distance to cover. Traditions of centrality, based on population density near the center, dispersing outward, worked when people lived that way.

Increased population works hand-in-hand with convenient personal motor vehicles to encourage dispersed development. The suburban ring expands outward the way mold spreads from a single bluish spot to rot an entire piece of food. The mold is happy. Life is good. We sprawl in fuzzy abandon.

It depends on the motor car. When streetcar lines extended to the edge of town, people lived along them, but such a network was limited by public willingness to invest. Given their own coaches departing and arriving on a personalized schedule, the public was even less willing to invest in something that appears so much less convenient.

Convenience is relative, of course. Try finding a place to park in either a city or a popular shopping complex when the shopping stampede is at its height. Still, the cold logic of economics dictates that towns shall die that suburbs may live.

Ultimately we will see recentralization around the new focal points chosen by society, whether it is revitalized traditional cities and towns or the synthetic towns generated by mall-like complexes. If sustainable fuels become a reality, some form of personal motor vehicle will continue to dominate the design of transportation and civilization. If not, the centers will have to accommodate the people who arrive on foot, by bike and by mass transportation.


RANTWICK said...

My retail work was mall and big-box. Even though my 5 or so years in retail were 15 years ago, they have had a lasting impact on my feelings about Christmas, leaving me cynical and grumpy about it.

Thank goodness for my children. If it weren't for them I would hate Christmas full-time and with a passion. As it is, they remind me of what is nice about it.

Not really on-topic, I know... thanks for letting me vent.

cafiend said...

Vent away, my friend. It lets me know you're there...and it provides a therapeutic service!

Steve A said...

Nowadays, the Internet means I get to hear Christmas music in August, if I'm so inclined, without wondering what they're trying to sell me. My particular favorite on really hot days is "Let it Snow."

Many of the towns around here came along too late to ever GET a real Main Street and have constructed images of what they MIGHT have been like after the fact.

cafiend said...

For some reason I used to whistle Christmas tunes while working in a light manufacturing facility in which all production took place in a large room, so everyone could see and hear each other. It had nothing to do with an overabundance of off-season Christmas spirit. The tunes are just such ear worms that they would bubble up on their own. And they're mostly designed to be simple, well within voice and whistle range. But people thought me odd. Not for the first or last time, I needlessly add.

2whls3spds said...

I have no clue if downtown retail will survive or not, much less the neighborhood stores (many have not). I miss the old neighborhood and mainstreet retail and would still shop it if available. I don't do malls nor big box stores, if they have something I cannot get anywhere else, it is ordered on line from them.

Christmas to me is a year round affair and has more to do with the condition of one's heart and nothing to do with the crass commercialism.

For the current malls to become proper community centers the scale will have to be reduced by infill. when it is over 1/2 a mile from the main road to the main entrance, it will never work for pedestrian or cycling.


cafiend said...

Good thoughts, Aaron.